Monday, October 13, 2008

Willow Oak Park BGF - Roxboro, NC - Review

As we drove through the tobacco fields of north-central North Carolina toward Willow Oak Music Park, I remembered one of the problems with this festival. Too many people in the audience smoke with casual disregard for the comfort of those around them. Nothing happened during the long weekend to erase that memory from our minds or nostrils. Willow Oak is a pleasant, simple music park with streets carved out to provide numerous shaded camping spaces, convenient standpipes for water, and plenty of porta-johns which are frequently cleaned. The newly built stage sits in a grassy, natural amphitheater providing good sight lines. Sound, provided by Doug Crabtree, was quite good; up to his usual standard. There were several problems with this festival, mostly growing from inept decisions made by promoter Clyde “Peaches” Solomon, who seems to make many rookie decisions despite having run festivals at Willow Oak for six years.

Two major programming mistakes led to the general weakness in the overall lineup of this festival at Willow Oak. The first is one that many other promoters seem to be making these days. Many promoters have been relying on scheduling major headliners to draw in customers. Rhonda Vincent, one of the most important performers in the business, played two well-received sets on Thursday to a small, but appreciative audience. Scheduling Vincent, regardless of the deal Peaches was able to make, must have cost at least as much as two or three very good mid-range national bands. Saturday night’s fireworks display also depleted the entertainment budget by the cost of another good national band without attracting any additional audience. People don’t attend a bluegrass festival to see fireworks, even though they might be a nice addition on July 4th. The result of these expenditures was that a good regional band and a rising national band were each required to play six sets over three days. No band, with the possible exception of Del McCoury, has sufficient readily available material to provide six distinct sets. These bands were forced to repeat material and thus lose listeners as the weekend progressed. Furthermore, three other bands performed four full sets. Such programming leads to a generally weak festival and depresses attendance.
Finally, there’s the issue of rules. Willow Oak has a clearly defined performance area with signs posted prohibiting dogs, alcohol, and golf carts within the area. The golf carts stayed out. The printed program for the festival also had a No alcohol prohibition. Emcee Buddy Michaels made several weak attempts to encourage people who smoke to move to the side. Each time he made this statement, we observed people sitting around us light up, almost in contempt for the announcement. When the promoter sits in the front seats and lights a cigarette, there’s no question what his attitude toward the smoking issue is and what message it sends. As the three evenings progressed, the number of drunks and open drinking within the performance area rose as did the noise from the audience. These shenanigans made listening to the music and enjoying the environment increasingly difficult.
Audience Member Showing Respect for Rules
Other Members of the Crowd

Last week at IBMA we met the promoter of the Thomas Point Beach bluegrass festival, held for the past thirty years in Maine and, by all accounts, one of the best festivals anywhere. This year Thomas Point Beach won IBMA’s award for Bluegrass Event of the Year. This is worth mentioning here, because the promoters there have earned a reputation for taking no guff from their fans. They have clear rules, and people not abiding by these rules are required to leave the festival grounds…no ifs, ands or buts. The result has been a festival boasting one of the best and most balanced lineups anywhere that draws bluegrass fans from a wide area to a rather remote location for a weekend of great music. Promoter Pati Crooker Mulligan regretfully decided to close Thomas Point Beach after this year’s event culminated thirty years of successful festivals. This emphasis is used to point to the comfort people feel in knowing that posted rules and regulations will be enforced with vigor and conviction.

Two regional bands impressed this weekend. We had first seen Ricky Stroud and his Hager's Mountain Boys in Conway, SC about three years ago opening for Lou Reid. It was their second performance as a band, and they were rough, but eager. We saw them a year later, much improved. This year, appearing at Willow Oak for three days they showed why they have become busier and more visible, not only in North Carolina, but across a broader spectrum. Perhaps the band's greatest strength is bass player and singer Blake Johnson, whose singing is better than good, filled with soulful bluesy sounds and interesting interpretations. His rendition of "Freeborn Man" was clear, understandable, and sufficiently innovative to stand aside from others in the often cliched song. The band has become tighter, with Cliff Smith on banjo chiming in, and Cliff Waddell on guitar singing well and playing a formidable flat picking guitar as well as good rhythm. Straub's Chestnut mandolin rings out, as does his voice.

Cliff Waddell, Ricky Stroud, Blake Johnson
Hagar's Mountain Boys

Blake Johnson

Constant Change, another regional band hailing from the Raleigh area, performed with their usual very solid traditional bluegrass. Dan Wells on guitar is a very good lead singer in the high lonesome tradition. He's backed by a first rate band Brian and David Aldridge on banjo and mandolin as well as Clifton Preddy on fiddle and Gary Baird on bass. The band features very good harmonies and delivers its program with energy and conviction, if not exceptional showmanship.
Constant Change

Unfortunately for quality bluegrass bands like the Hagar's Mountain Boys and Constant Change, fans confuse energy, speed, and volume for quality. The Bluegrass Brothers put on a high energy, high volume program that pleases crowds while not exhibiting first rate singing or picking, despite recent kudos on Bluegrass-L. Fans, especially those well-lubricated by alcohol, whoop and holler, but don't get music whose lyrics are understandable or instrumentation which is tight or well presented. The formula seems to work for them, but for people wishing to hear well-presented bluegrass, they just don't cut it. The word "raw" is often applied to this band as if it were a compliment. For some, I guess it is.
Victor Dowdy

Robert Dowdy

Jr. Sisk and Rambler's Choice took on a big assignment with courage and commitment. This band, together again for a little over a year now, has shown great progress and now emerges on the national scene as a first rate, rising national band. Sisk, who has performed as a side man and lead singer with Wyatt Rice, an earlier version of Rambler's Choice, and for a number of years as a crucial member of Blueridge, has emerged as a band leader to complement his well known and appreciated lead singing and rhythm guitar. He shows increasing comfort and humor at the microphone introducing the songs, the members of his band, and providing amusing patter. The music provided by Rambler's Choice represents traditional bluegrass at its very best, presenting long established standards as well as new songs written by Jr. himself as well as his cousin Tim Massey on bass. Chris Harris on mandolin, while still quite young, is a rising star with great licks and a first rate voice. Sadly, his prized Adam Steffey mandolin was stolen at IBMA last week. All hope it is quickly recovered, but be on the lookout for it. Billy Hawkes on fiddle and David Wilkerson on banjo are both fine, both fitting well into the ensemble sound Jr. seeks. The Friday night jam with guests Johnny Ridge, Adam Poindexter, Viktor and Donnie Dowdy, and Alan Mills of Lost and Found, provided the highlight of the festival while serving to save Jr.'s voice for the additional sets he had.
Jr. Sisk

Chris Harris

Lost and Found has been touring for over twenty-five years with Allen Mills at its head. It's a reliable bluegrass band that always provides value. New mandolin player Scott Napier is making his mark as well as mentoring Mills' four year old grandson Zachary on stage. Scottie Sparks brings a first class bluegrass voice to the mix.
Scottie Sparks & Allan Mills

Zachary Potter & Scott Napier

Rhonda Vincent & The Rage and The Lonesome River Band provided the headliner performances expected of them. An interesting highlight of Rhonda's performance was the presence of Dorothy, who has written one of Rhonda's most requested Gospel testimonies.
Rhonda & Dorothy

Hunter Berry

Mickey Harris

Lonesome River Band
Sammy Shelor

Andy Ball

Brandon Rickman

The Expense of One Very Good Bluegrass Band

The Faces of Bluegrass
Stan - The Flyer Man

Don Dilling

Golf Cart Parade

A Long Weekend